Some of the best works challenge us to see the world a little differently. One example still fresh in my mind, even after a year, is Gary Owen’s play Iphigenia in Splott. It relocates a Greek myth in time and place to inner-city Cardiff, where we meet a young woman who confounds all our preconceptions. It illustrates beautifully, painfully, how society can let us down when our needs are greatest.
Rachel O’Riordan’s deceptively simple production challenged all who saw it to look again at young people whose behaviour we can all too easily judge. At the end audience members turned to strangers, sharing how their thinking had been radically changed. It was truly transformative.
At a regional arts venue in the centre of Scotland, there’s something particularly special about presenting Scottish-made work to a local audience. I’m passionate about people being able to experience performance that looks and sounds like them, that speaks to their experience and that reflects their perspective on the world. Art is one of the ways that Scotland – and each of our many and varied communities – is celebrated, showcased and acknowledged, and there’s something very special about seeing your place in the world reflected in a performance. As a Creative Scotland-supported organisation, we take this responsibility seriously.
Through conversations with many of those who support Macrobert Arts Centre, I’ve discovered that people treasure the centre because of its role in enriching our community. An arts centre should be a place people look forward to coming to – a space that’s exciting, creative and welcoming, not rarefied or exclusive. Based on the University of Stirling campus, we have an opportunity to bring academic learning to a wider audience.
We take every opportunity to encourage our audience to engage a little more deeply with our artistic programming – whether through post-show discussions, Q&A sessions with experts around a film screening, or artist-led introductions to their work. Not least, an arts centre should be a place for fun, for uproarious laughter, deafening cheers and shrieks of excitement. It doesn’t do to take anything too seriously, and bringing people together to connect and have fun is no small ambition.
Being creative offers an even richer experience. In a performance environment a story is told, the imagination is fired, and the tools for self-expression are developed and honed. Extrapolated across life, these skills open doors to a richer life, enabling individuals to become more socially visible, their stories better heard and more widely understood. At Macrobert Arts Centre, our work with young people who struggle in formal education is transformational – new voices come to light, new talents emerge and people surprise themselves.
We’ve taken time to think about the value the centre brings to local life, and how we can work more deeply with our community. That led to a redefining of our mission, which is now about ‘making active connections’ with those around us. We’re increasingly finding new ways to connect with people who have most to gain from their arts centre, whether that’s through adapted provision for those with additional support needs, increasing the diversity of voices showcased, or providing bursaries.
We’ll also be taking time each season to focus on a theme or issue that is of central importance in our lives, and that is key to the lives of people in our community. Centred around a key piece of exciting or challenging performance, we’ll be curating regular seasons of activity to stimulate discussion, raise questions, and promote understanding. This sort of work is a key part of our role in contributing to making vibrant, energised, welcoming communities, of the kind we all want to live in.
Julie Ellen is artistic director and chief executive, Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling.